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Column: Being mayor is different from being a legislator. But Bass has shined in every political job

A woman in a red blazer, with a city behind her
Karen Bass is the type of leader who gets things done with a smile rather than a sneer or a threatening stare, columnist George Skelton writes.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
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Back when she was a legislative leader, one rare quality that impressed me about Karen Bass was her candor in admitting ignorance about a complex subject.

Usually, politicians will try to fake their way through answering a reporter’s question involving an issue they don’t know squat about.

Or if they do assert that more thought is needed, it’s often because they’re afraid to say what’s really on their mind.

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Bass, now Los Angeles’ mayor-elect, had just risen to Assembly speaker, the second-most powerful elective state office, surpassed only by governor. This was in 2008 and we were having lunch.

I asked her about water, a pretty dry topic for most people but one involving the lifeblood of California. It again was surfacing as a major issue in the Legislature.

Then, as now and periodically throughout California’s history, we were in a drought. The principal battleground — as it still is and has been for at least half a century — was the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. It’s California’s main water hub.

I asked Bass: How do we make the estuary a more reliable and efficient water source for Central and Southern California without devastating delta communities and farms and killing off the remaining salmon that are vital for the coastal fishing industry?

The Los Angeles lawmaker looked at me and said, “I’m strictly a city kid.”

“Coming from L.A., we use it all,” she continued, referring to delta water and poking fun at herself while chuckling, “but we have no concept where it comes from. We get it out of a bottle or the tap.

“I know that it’s a contentious issue — I mean ‘Chinatown,’ the movie,” she added, referring to the 1974 classic about L.A. draining the Owens Valley in the Eastern Sierra and using the water to develop the San Fernando Valley.

“That was the extent of my knowledge,” Bass admitted. “Then I come up here [to Sacramento] and find out I live in a flood plain. I was stunned.”

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It was astonishing candor. But the key was her eagerness to learn.

The Democrat took trips to Bakersfield and Fresno to hear firsthand about California’s severe water problems.

Bass said that until a San Joaquin Valley assemblywoman led her on an irrigation field trip, “I’d never been on a farm before.”

Water became a self-described “high priority” for her.

The Legislature began to craft a major water bond proposal to present to voters. Bass wisely delegated the Assembly’s negotiating power to two potential opponents of the bond — one an environmentalist, the other from farm country.

In 2009, the Senate and Assembly agreed on an $11.1-billion bond and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed it. That was the positive side. The negative was that the bond was bloated with putrid pork, including bike trails and “watershed education centers.”

We were in the middle of the Great Recession. The economy was in tatters and the Legislature was cutting into education and safety-net programs. Voters could not have digested the pork, so the bond was pulled from the 2010 ballot. And pulled again in 2012.

Finally, with Jerry Brown as governor, a slimmed-down $7.1-billion bond was agreed to in 2014 and voters approved it by more than 2 to 1. Bass had left the Legislature by then and been elected to Congress.

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As Assembly speaker, a Bass obsession was pushing through reforms in programs for foster children. She deserves much credit for that. It’s far from a top priority for other legislative leaders.

But her most notable achievement was in teaming with state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), Schwarzenegger and — amazingly — the Legislature’s two Republican leaders in 2009 to pass an unpopular but necessary package of tax hikes and spending cuts to pull the state budget out of a $42-billion deficit hole.

It cost the two Republicans their political careers. Senate Minority Leader Dave Cogdill of Modesto was abruptly dumped by GOP colleagues. In the Assembly, Minority Leader Mike Villines of Clovis hung on for another month but was shunned by the GOP forever after.

All four leaders received the annual Profile in Courage Award from the John F. Kennedy Library.

Bass is the type of leader who gets things done with a smile rather than a sneer or a threatening stare.

Everyone likes her. She’s comfortable to be around. Calmly articulate, not bombastic. Smart and energetic. Liberal, but not fiery.

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Assembly and Senate leaders often become embroiled in backstabbing and private badmouthing. But that wasn’t true with Bass and Steinberg.

“She’s got a way about her that is pretty unique among leaders,” says Steinberg, now Sacramento’s mayor. “She’s policy driven, political, tough and graceful. That is a hard combination.

“What I remember more than anything else is she was incredibly cool under pressure. Unflappable. It was a very stressful time. People were talking about state bankruptcy. ... I really believe we would not have gotten through that period without the confidence in her of those who were her colleagues.”

L.A. Democrat Fabian Núñez, who preceded Bass as speaker, says: “Her biggest strength in this era of political hostility is her sense of humility tied to a desire to get things done. That’s the combination you really need these days. Obviously, L.A. is in a deep state of trouble.”

Republican Villines recalls that Bass “was always very clear where she drew a line and wouldn’t draw a line, and that left a lot of room to negotiate.”

“She’ll make a great mayor,” he predicts. “L.A. will be in good shape with Karen as chief executive.”

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Well, being a chief executive is a lot different from being a legislator. But Bass has shined in every previous political job.

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